Friday, July 12, 2019

album review: 'schlagenheim' by black midi

So full disclosure, the reason I'm choosing to cover this is exactly what you think it is: it got a ton of acclaim from critics I otherwise trust, and on a slow week, I figured I might as well knock it off my list. That also meant I could be setting myself up for that kind of album that I'm lukewarm on and everyone else loves, but hey, that seems to have been the running theme for most of 2019, so why not keep it up!

Anyway, black midi - English post-punk/noise rock group that seems to play fast and loose with genres, formed in 2015, released a couple of singles, performed at SXSW in 2018, got signed to Rough Trade, and now we have a debut album. Again, this is a project for which I'm going in cold and a little perturbed about what we could get with this: I kept hearing 'no wave' and 'math rock' show up in discussions of the debut with a very distinctly German-sounding name which translates to 'hit home', and I'm not the biggest fan of either genre. And the producer Dan Carey didn't really enthuse me either - I know him most for producing the worst Franz Ferdinand album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, but other than that... again, going in cold here, so let's not waste any more time: what did black midi deliver with Schlagenheim?

So I'll admit this album took a fair bit to really process - it's off-kilter and jagged by design, and is absolutely not for the majority of rock or post-punk or even pure noise rock fans on song structure and delivery alone, at least on the surface. And that's the trick with black midi: once you dig even a bit past the surface and tune your mindset to its frequency and cadence, you'll find an act with buckets of sheer talent, real technical chops, charisma, potential, and even common ancestors with the artsier side of post-punk! In other words, while it seems like a lot of critics are celebrating black midi for as unique and inscrutable as they can be, I'm going to praise it for what I can understand and contextualize, which I'd argue is just as if not more compelling than just being weird.

But I do feel it's important to qualify that I do have criticisms of this band, and they start with the vocals: not the throaty theatricality of Geordie Greep, in co-opting the nasal wildness of David Byrne and early Nick Cave I can see this dude falling in a similar lane as the frontman of Iceage but even more manic and intense. No, black midi actually has vocals from Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin as well, and while I definitely think the screams work on songs like 'Near DT, MI' and 'Years Ago', his more reserved timbre is just on a lower tier compared to Greep. And like with any act with multiple singers, I think it really was a missed opportunity to not make use of any interplay in the songwriting - there are a fair few songs here that could make use of multiple perspectives especially given how often the pronouns shift, and added voices could have been used to either harmonize or disorient to great affect. And while I'm nitpicking, this is absolutely an act that can slide into a repetitive pattern very quickly, and while I might like a song like 'bmbmbm', it does feel lyrically underdeveloped, even if I can definitely see a touch of Swans in the song's baser impulses.

And I want to take this to the writing straightaway, because for as much as Greep's cackles and vivid imagery might be considered incomprehensible by some listeners and critics, the conflict actually snaps into focus pretty quickly, and many have perceived it as a pretty consistent metanarrative surrounding the band itself: the fight between conformity and a socially accepted lane versus a less stable, more dangerous individualist streak. And while you'd think given the music black midi makes that they'd obviously fall in the latter category, there's more shades of grey to this poetry. As much as '953' and 'Ducter' bookend the album as moments of rejecting conformity and 'Near DT, MI' is a scathing indictment of how that system can be corrupted and fail, they are very much aware of how that individualist streak can be just as toxic and depraved. Take the album highlight 'bmbmbm', where our protagonist leers over this woman who moves with an incredible purpose instead of a world around her who'll suck themselves off - but the lust is obsessive and creepy without anyone to curb it. And 'Reggae' shows while he might have a plan to stabilize and move forward into a future rife with uncertainty, there's some real admiration and envy for someone who can so clearly stick the landing now, which gives you the impression that if the system had space for people like him, he wouldn't have a problem being a part of it. That also comes up in the sexually charged 'In Schlagenheim', where he grasps why flawed and fractured people seek satisfaction in that system - so even if he might not given his eccentricities and desire, what else is he to do? It reminds me and not for the first time of the 2015 Ought album Sun Coming Down where on songs like 'Beautiful Blue Sky' where in the pits of desperation and wild swings of individuality, that system looks so fragile. And they're aware of its defense mechanisms like on 'Years Ago', referencing an Alabama rapper who was humiliated on live TV for trying to speak authentic truth... but even earlier on 'Speedway', as much as the change described might be disruptive, it's more clumsy and haphazard in its evolution than outright malignant, and maybe even could be nudged in the right direction if the corruptive influences are curbed. And all of this circles around the album's centerpiece: 'Western', which might as well serve as an outlaw story where the central character kills a childhood friend in a duel to eke out hardscrabble success by stealing the friend's words and poetry... only to reach the stage and see that friend venerated in place of him with his real truth being spoken.

And what's startling is that so much of the music and production is willing to embody not just a mostly unique structure with its flips across fidelity as the scuzzed out grooves shudder and accelerate through its midsection, but that it's bookended by melodies that clearly have a liquid, borderline country timbre! That's one thing I find so startling about black midi, because not only can they maintain a brand of composition that constantly seems on the verge of collapsing into a jangling mess of rattling guitars and feedback, but that they can bend out of their niche so effectively while maintaining a unique sound. The quasi-funk of 'Speedway', how 'Reggae' seems like anything but until you pay attention to some of the guitar passages and the song's manic desire for every little thing to be alright, complete with tremolo guitar passages that also saturate moments behind '953''s mutated fusion of grooves, to how 'Years Ago' even brings in traces of burbling, spare percussion and ethereal backing vocals that might owe a passing debt to hip-hop before the wiry screams and hammering riffs show a hardcore side that matches similar demented, jangling shreds on 'Near DT, MI' - although why that last song brings in what sounds almost like a two-step on its outro baffles me. But for someone who can appreciate a slow build and the band earning some of those no wave comparisons, 'bmbmbm' with its stuttered, stalking groove covering cackled shrieks, sudden blasts of drums, and the guitars gradually thickening as Greep's delivery gets ever more intense... it's one hell of a song, let me tell you. And normally this would be the place where I'd highlight production eccentricities or missteps, but in this case Dan Carey just needed to get out of the way, ensure the mix had depth and the guitar and bass texture cut through, and allow the more wild shifts in sound and production intensify the atmosphere, and by God he did it!

And as such... yeah, believe the hype on this one, folks, black midi really delivered here with Schlagenheim to the point where they're such a fully formed and potent rock act that I literally have no idea where they'll choose to go from here, there are so many doors open! Again, this is a little tough to recommend because it is so wild, discordant, and challenging at first, but it was a project that pulled me in time and time again, and I enjoyed the hell out of it - solid 8/10, and if what I described what your speed, you owe it to yourself to get onboard. And while I appreciate the irony of music critics telling folks to get on board with a new indie act who is all about bucking that music industry... well, just like this album, you'll have to reconcile that complexity for yourself.

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